The champagne corks had barely popped inside Wembley on Saturday before Leeds Rhinos’ critics were sharpening their knives. It did not take long for Richard Agar’s post-match press briefing to turn to the issue of criticism, of which he and the Rhinos have faced plenty during a difficult last two years.
“I don’t think I’ll ever win the PR battle,” Agar insisted after lifting the Challenge Cup following a 17-16 victory over Salford. After six years away from coaching in the top flight, he was a resoundingly unpopular appointment among Leeds fans, and as is the case in 2020, there are many who feel this latest sporting success comes with an asterisk attached.
Having had to win only three games to lift the Challenge Cup because of Covid-19’s impact on the tournament, some feel this does not suggest Leeds are fully over the struggles which have been all too obvious since the retirement of Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow, who continues to battle motor neurone disease.
But even if their coach isn’t too bothered, the new breed of Leeds stars are keen to silence their detractors once and for all over the final weeks of the season. “Once you taste success you don’t want to let go, you want more of it,” Richie Myler, the full-back who won the Lance Todd Trophy on Saturday, admitted.
Myler is one of a number of Leeds players who have turned their careers around under Agar, who was right to point out there are stories of redemption all across his squad. That includes his captain, Luke Gale, who kicked the winning drop goal on Saturday. Gale had barely played for two years due to injury before joining Leeds in the winter, with the final only his 12th game for his hometown club. “I don’t think this is it for us,” he insisted. “We’re only going to get better, we’re a young team on the whole. I wanted to come here, despite Leeds having two barren years after winning the 2017 Grand Final. I want to get them back to where they belong.”
Where many feel they belong is in the mix for the Grand Final, which the Rhinos’ attention must turn to quickly. Historically, Wembley winners have found it difficult to back up and refocus, and this year will be as tough as ever, with the race for the top four featuring multiple midweek fixtures as Super League scrambles to complete its domestic schedule.
Leeds lie just outside the top four, with a game against the champions, St Helens, on Friday. “I moved from Australia to get Leeds back to where they were,” said the centre, Konrad Hurrell. “I’m blessed to be here and it was a real struggle last year, but we’ve stuck to the Rhinos way and we’re desperate to win again and again having tasted it once now.”
Myler admitted that “it’s been an indifferent road to this point”, which is true for himself and many of his team-mates, who were written off at various stages last year: just like their coach. “But there’s a special group in there and we’ve dug in for each other. There’s still plenty left to play for this year too.”
Even if Leeds win this strangest of all Super League seasons, you suspect some of their critics will still deem it a hollow success due to the effect the pandemic has had on the sport. But with Burrow their motivation after his courageous story was shared nationally in the days leading up to the final, few neutrals would begrudge him and Leeds at least one moment of happiness.